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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers AP

The 2013 Chargers earned the AFC’s final wild card berth on the final day of the regular season, and were they ever the definition of a wild card.

Of the Chargers’ seven losses a season ago, six were by one score or less. They were 5-2 against playoff clubs but a mere 4-5 against also-rans, including defeats to Oakland, Washington and Houston.

But in the end, San Diego got hot at the right time, winning four in a row to end the regular season. Then, in the postseason, the Chargers proved they belonged, upsetting the favored Bengals in Cincinnati and putting up a fight in a loss at Denver in the divisional round.

In all, it was a successful first season for Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who oversaw a club that always seemed to give itself a chance to win. And was it ever a splendid return to top form for quarterback Philip Rivers, who again looked like one of the best in his profession.

In some ways, the Chargers might have been ahead of schedule a season ago. The question is, what growth are they capable of this time around?

Strengths.

The Chargers’ offense is formidable. Rivers was fun to watch in 2013, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and ranking near the top of the NFL in passing yards gained per attempt (8.2). He was sacked 19 fewer times in 2013 than in the previous campaign (30 vs. 49), which speaks well of McCoy’s scheme and the work of the offensive line, which stepped up its play.

No team was better on third downs than the Chargers, and no quarterback may have been better than Rivers in such situations. Per STATS LLC, Rivers converted first downs on a league-high 49.4 percent of his passing attempts (77-of-156).

Rivers has multiple capable targets. Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen starred as a rookie, hauling in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs) is a key security blanket for Rivers, as is tailback Danny Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs). Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal and tight end Ladarius Green will also get their shots to contribute, too.

The Chargers’ running game is no slouch, either. Lead back Ryan Mathews racked up 1,255 yards a season ago in a career-best campaign. Ex-Colt Donald Brown gives San Diego another starter-caliber rusher behind Mathews. In addition to his pass catching, Woodhead can chip in a few carries per game.

Finally, the Chargers’ defense appears stronger than a season ago. Free safety Eric Weedle is a standout, while ex-Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers could be just what the secondary needs. Defensive end Corey Liguet (12.5 combined sacks in the last two seasons), inside linebacker Donald Butler and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are nice defensive foundation pieces for now and the future.

Weaknesses.

The Chargers allowed more yards per rush and per pass than any other AFC a team a season ago. Even if San Diego’s defense is better — and it should be, with Flowers arriving and Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury-shortened campaigns — this isn’t a shutdown group by any stretch.

The play of the outside linebackers will be key for the Chargers. Liguet (5.5 sacks) paced the club in sacks in 2013, with fellow end Kendall Reyes finishing second with five sacks. For a club employing a 3-4 base scheme like San Diego, the outside ‘backers must generate some pressure off the edges.

On offense, the play of the Chargers’ line still bears some monitoring, even after the improvements made a season ago.

Changes.

The Chargers’ most important changes could come in the secondary, where Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett should bolster the cornerback corps. Those additions came after the club cut ties with corner Derek Cox, who struggled in his lone season in San Diego.

The Chargers have a new offensive coordinator, with Frank Reich replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Titans’ head coach. San Diego has also made a change at backup quarterback, with Kellen Clemens (ex-St. Louis) signing on to replace Charlie Whitehurst, who followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

The Chargers’ RB depth chart is a little more crowded with the addition of Donald Brown, who led the Colts in rushing a season ago. He effectively replaces Ronnie Brown as one of the club’s top three backs.

Camp battles.

Several positions bear watching:

—   Right guard: Incumbent Jeromey Clary comes off shoulder and hip surgery; can third-round pick Chris Watt push him for the job?

—   Cornerback: Flowers, Verrett and holdovers Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the top four options at the position. Flowers seems likely to garner a major role, but how quickly will Verrett adjust to the NFL game?

—   Running back: How will the reps be split between Mathews, Woodhead and Brown?

—   Nose tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers are among the options. Cam Thomas, one of the regulars at the position a season ago, signed with Pittsburgh.

—   Outside linebacker: There could be some healthy competition here, with Ingram, Freeney, Larry English, Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and rookie Jeremiah Attaochu all in the mix for work.

Prospects.

The Chargers’ schedule is both inviting and challenging, with the biggest tests right out of the gate and down the stretch.

The Chargers begin with a pair of challenging out-of-conference games at Arizona and vs. Seattle. A 0-2 start is quite possible, given the degree of difficulty of those matchups.

Then comes a five-game run that could ultimately make or break the Chargers’ season. The next five opponents — the Bills (away), Jets (home), Jaguars (home), Raiders (away) and Chiefs (home) — are all conference opponents ranked behind San Diego in PFT’s preseason power rankings. Here’s a chance for the Chargers to stack up some important AFC wins — and they must do so.

Similarly, the Chargers need to make hay in the early part of November. They begin the month at Miami (Nov. 2), then take their bye. Then comes home games vs. Oakland (Nov. 16) and St. Louis (Nov. 23). The Chargers may have to sweep this three-game stretch, considering their next five games — their final of the campaign — are at Baltimore, home vs. New England, home vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

In all, the schedule seems a perfect test for the Chargers. If their offense remains potent and efficient, and if their defense has improved, the Chargers could get rolling, and they could prove a challenging matchup for anyone, even those strong outfits they face in the final weeks.

The Chargers didn’t blink in tough situations a season ago, which makes them all the more intriguing in 2014. But can they move forward? It probably comes down to whether they can get a few more stops on “D.” They are going to score their share of points.

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Washington drafts Kendall Fuller, fourth Fuller brother in the NFL

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Kendall Fuller #11 of the Virginia Tech Hokies makes the tackle on Austin Appleby #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers as he fumbles the football that would be returned for a touchdown at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 19, 2015 in West Lafayette, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) Getty Images

When Washington drafted Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller in the third round of the draft on Friday night, he became the fourth member of his family to make it to the NFL.

Fuller’s brother Kyle Fuller is a cornerback for the Bears and his brother Corey Fuller is a receiver for the Lions. The oldest brother, Vincent Fuller, is a former NFL player.

All four brothers played for Virginia Tech, and when Kendall ended his career with the Hokies, coach Frank Beamer said, “Virginia Tech is better because the Fuller brothers were Hokies. Vinny, Corey, Kyle and Kendall were all different, but they were all the same in that they were smart, competitive, very athletic and great teammates, who possessed great character.”

Today Kansas State fullback Glenn Gronkowski could be drafted, and he would follow his brothers Chris, Dan and Rob Gronkowski in the NFL. The Fullers and the Gronkowskis would be the second and third families since the AFL-NFL merger to have four brothers in the NFL. The first was the Browner family, with Jim, Joey, Keith and Ross, who played in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Jerry Jones closes door on Hardy return to Cowboys

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 15: Greg Hardy #76 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cowboys have closed the door on Greg Hardy returning to the team, owner Jerry Jones told reporters Friday night.

The news comes as no real surprise — Hardy has been a free agent for seven weeks — but Jones going the no-comment route is the most definitive statement of disinterest to date. The Cowboys have gone three rounds into the draft without adding an edge rusher, but the team doesn’t see Hardy as a solution.

Stephen Jones, Jerry’s son, has said the the team is looking for pass rushers, and that search will continue into the final day of the draft and apparently beyond. Hardy had six sacks for the Cowboys last year.

Their pass-rush issue is compounded by the situations facing Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, who are facing four-game suspensions to start next season.

“Ultimately we want to find a dominant type of pass rusher,” Stephen Jones said earlier this month. “Obviously that’s easier said than done.”

The Cowboys-Hardy experiment simply didn’t work out, and the Cowboys figure having to get creative to address their pass rush is better than dealing with Hardy-related headaches.

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Browns take Cody Kessler, as Connor Cook slide continues

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The Connor Cook slide continues.

He wasn’t taken before Christian Hackenberg. He wasn’t taken before Jacoby Brissett. And he wasn’t taken before Cody Kessler.

The Browns took Kessler in round three. Which means Cook is still on the board, as the compensatory phase of round three begins.

The slide by Cook is stunning. He told PFT Live earlier this week he’d get nervous if not taken after round two. He may be undrafted after round three.

The good news (if there is any) is that former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was a fourth-round pick. Things worked out pretty well for him.

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Patriots grab QB Jacoby Brissett

TALLAHASSEE, FL - NOVEMEBER 14: Jacoby Brissett #12 looks over his line prior to a play against the Florida State Seminoles during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida. The Florida State Seminoles beat the North Carolina Wolfpack 34-17. (Photo by Jeff Gammons/Getty Images) Getty Images

Thanks to this week’s ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Patriots face the prospect of playing the first four weeks of the season without quarterback Tom Brady.

That left them in need of a quarterback to go with Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster. They addressed that need in the third round on Friday night.

The Patriots drafted Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State with the 91st overall pick. Brissett is a big quarterback at 6’4″ and 231 pounds and had some big games against good opponents over the course of his ACC career, but there’s definitely work to be done if he’s going to be an NFL starter.

New England can afford to give him that time with Brady and Garoppolo on hand now and he could follow Garoppolo into the No. 2 job if he continues to develop.

The Patriots made their first pick of the year in the second round when they took Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones with the 60th overall pick. Jones also excelled as a returner in college. They traded the 61st pick to the Saints, receiving third- and fourth-round picks in return. They used the third rounder on offensive lineman Joe Thuney, who was a college teammate of Brissett.

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Ohio State sets record for most players drafted through first three rounds

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 28: Terry Richardson #13 of the Michigan Wolverines tackles Braxton Miller #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Getty Images

Ohio State set the record for the most players drafted from a school in a single year when they had 14 players selected in the 2004 draft.

They may not match that record this year, but the NFL announced that they have more players selected through the first three rounds than any school in history. There are 10 players from Columbus off the board.

When the Bills selected defensive tackle Adolphus Washington with the 80th overall pick, it meant that 10 percent of the players selected to that point were Buckeyes. The percentage swung even further in the direction of Urban Meyer’s talent pipeline when the Texans made wide receiver Braxton Miller the 85th overall pick and ninth Ohio State player selected, and then the Seahawks took tight end Nick Vannett with the 94th pick.

Five Buckeyes went on Thursday night and two more went to the Saints in the second round. New Orleans took wide receiver Michael Thomas with the 47th pick and then traded up with the Patriots to No. 61 to pick safety Vonn Bell.

With quarterback Cardale Jones, linebacker Joshua Perry and other Buckeyes still available, the number of Ohio State products is likely to grow before Saturday’s festivities come to an end.

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Jaylon Smith will receive insurance payment, Myles Jack won’t

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack were the two best linebackers in college football last year. They both suffered serious knee injuries that caused them to drop in the draft. They both had insurance policies designed to protect them in case of an injury. But only Smith will collect on that policy.

That’s because Smith bought a policy that came with a significant payout if he dropped into the second round of the draft, while Jack bought a policy that would only pay out if he fell past the 45th pick.

Smith’s policy will pay $900,000 because he fell all the way to the 34th overall pick in the draft, Darren Rovell of ESPN reports. That doesn’t make up for the money Smith lost with his injury: If he’d been the third overall pick he would have signed a contract with a total value of about $26 million, but as the 34th overall pick he’ll get about $6.5 million on his rookie deal. Still, a $900,000 payout takes a little of the sting off his injury.

But Jack won’t get any insurance money. His policy would only pay if he dropped below the 45th overall pick, and the Jaguars drafted Jack at pick No. 36. Jack will make about $6.3 million on his rookie contract, but nothing from insurance.

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Browns make another trade, still own nine more picks in this draft

Cleveland Browns v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

The Browns traded pick No. 77 in the third round to the Panthers, who selected West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley.

The Browns have made four picks in this draft and made two trades. They netted a third-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder in their first round trade with the Titans, then gave up Nos. 77 and 141 to the Panthers for pick Nos. 93, 129 and 168 in this draft.

That gives the Browns five picks between Nos. 93-138, then Nos. 168, 172, 173 and 223.

No. 93 is a late third-round pick to be made later Friday night, then the Browns will have eight picks tomorrow.

Before trading with the Panthers the Browns used pick No. 76 on offensive tackle Shon Coleman, a left tackle at Auburn who will compete for the right tackle job with the Browns.

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Kevin Faulk announces Patriots pick wearing Tom Brady jersey

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The #FreeBrady movement has made its way to Chicago.

Announcing New England’s third-round pick, former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk had a Tom Brady jersey under his jacket and over his dress shirt. Faulk unbuttoned the jacket, pulled it open, stood at the front of the stage with his hands on his hips while being introduced by NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent.

“With the 78th pick of the 2016 NFL draft, the New England Patriots and Tom Brady select Joe Thuney, linebacker, North Carolina State,” Faulk declared.

The guys handling NFL Network’s coverage chuckled briefly but didn’t mention Faulk’s gesture. Which probably was smart.

On Monday, a federal appeals court reinstated Brady’s four-game #Deflategate suspension.

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Dolphins add Kenyan Drake to backfield

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide returns a kickoff for a 95 yards touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) Getty Images

Dolphins coach Adam Gase said during the team’s minicamp this week that it was “very impressive” to see running back Jay Ajayi on the field, continuing a recent trend of confident notes about the backfield from Miami.

Early in free agency it looked like they weren’t so comfortable as they made an unsuccessful bid for C.J. Anderson as a restricted free agent and the team used a third-round pick to add another player to the mix. They selected Alabama running back Kenyan Drake at No. 73 overall on Friday night.

Drake has plenty of experience in backfield committees after sharing time with 2015 second-round pick T.J. Yeldon and 2016 second-round pick Derrick Henry at Alabama over the last two seasons. Drake, who broke his leg in 2014 and his arm in 2015, will bring speed out of the backfield and could be a pass receiving option as a complement to Ajayi.

Drake also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the NCAA title game last season and made several other big plays on special teams at Alabama, which should ensure him early playing time even if the running back rotation works out differently come September.

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Ravens add to pass rush, again

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 14:  Quarterback Drew Lock #3 of the Missouri Tigers avoids a sack by Bronson Kaufusi #90 of the Brigham Young Cougars as he rolls out to pass in the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) Getty Images

It seems the Ravens had a plan on Friday night, to add picks and to add pass rushers.

After making two trades and selecting Kamalei Correa in the second round, the Ravens in the third round picked defensive end Bronson Kaufusi at No. 70.

Kaufusi, who’s 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, had 11 sacks last season at BYU. He’ll play as a defensive end as the Ravens groom him, while Correa while likely play as a linebacker and then as a defensive end in nickel packages.

Kaufusi also played basketball at BYU and played both as a defensive end and as a stand-up pass rusher during his college career.

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Jaylon Smith says there’s “absolutely” a chance he will play this year

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The Cowboys balanced their win-now selection of running back Ezekiel Elliott in round one with a play-later option in second-round linebacker Jaylon Smith. But don’t tell Smith that he won’t be playing in 2016.

Asked by reporters after getting picked Friday night whether there’s a chance he’ll play this year, Smith said, “Absolutely. Never doubt God.”

Smith suffered a serious knee injury during his final game with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Concerns regarding nerve damage caused him to fall, but he ended up being drafted earlier than expected — even earlier than linebacker Myles Jack.

“I get different sensations everyday with the nerve, but it’s just a timing thing,” Smith said. “I’m only three-and-a-half months out, so time will definitely tell, but the knee is fine. That was cleared at the medical recheck that the knee won’t have any issues. But it’s just a timing thing for the nerve. It’s too early in the process to tell. . . .

“There’s no recovery time because this is a process where we’re relying on God to do his work. We have to be patient and you know the nerve can come back tomorrow. It’s just a timing thing. Whenever it wants to come back, it’ll come back.”

The fact that the Cowboys made Smith such a high pick suggests that they’re hopeful the nerve will come back sooner than later. If it does, the Cowboys could have yet another great player as they continue to search for glory.

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Panthers find a cornerback, take Samford’s James Bradberry

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 1:  A man dressed as a toilet runs on the field during the Colorado State Rams game against the Colorado Buffaloes at INVESCO Field at Mile High on September 1, 2007 in Denver, Colorado. Colorado won 31-28 in overtime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers were flush with salary cap room after taking the franchise tag off Josh Norman, but they were left with a leaky secondary.

So they drafted a guy who will have to help fix that problem.

With the 62nd overall pick, the Panthers drafted Samford cornerback James Bradberry, who will get a crack at replacing the departed Norman.

Of course, Bradberry wasn’t necessarily expecting the call, as he was busy fixing his mother’s toilet at the time the Panthers took him, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review.

While he’s a small-school player, that’s the kind of life skill that eclipses being able to cook like Eli Apple.

He’s a big, physical player with little name recognition, but that’s what Norman was before he developed into an All-Pro, but the Panthers are hoping he develops more quickly, since they have little to no depth at the position.

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Report: Some teams think Raiders 2nd rounder Jihad Ward needs knee scope

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 22: Christian Hackenberg #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions is hit for a sack by Jihad Ward #17 of the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated Penn State 16-14. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Raiders took Illinois defensive tackle Jihad Ward with the 44th overall pick of the draft on Friday night, adding to a defense that they’ve been building up over the last few years through free agency and the draft.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, some teams were concerned about the health of Ward’s knee and believe that he needs to have arthroscopic surgery that would keep him off the field for six weeks.

The Raiders are not one of those teams, however, and he’ll presumably be taking part in the team’s rookie minicamp before finishing out the rest of the offseason program. Ward only played two years at Illinois after starting his college career at the junior college level, but played with a lot of energy and has a build that could make him a fit at various positions across the defensive line in Oakland.

Oakland drafted Khalil Mack in the first round and added defensive tackle Justin Ellis in the fourth round of the 2014 draft before picking defensive end Mario Edwards in the second round last year. Edwards suffered a neck injury that has created some doubt about his availability in 2016.

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Washington pounces on Cravens before Pats can

Zz01MzE2ZDczODY4YWFjYTRmM2VmYjgwZGU3NTZlNzFlOA== AP

One of the more intriguing prospects in the draft has landed with his first NFL team, even though he thought it would be another one.

Washington made former USC linebacker Su’a Cravens the 53rd pick in the draft.

Via Tarik El-Bashir of CSN Mid-Atlantic, Cravens said he was surprised by the selection. He thought he would be picked by the Patriots.

Cravens can play safety and linebacker. He told reporters that Washington plans to use him as a linebacker in the dime defense, for now.

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Buccaneers trade up to take kicker Roberto Aguayo

TALLAHASSEE, FL - NOVEMBER 22: Kicker Roberto Aguayo #19 of the Florida State Seminoles kicks the game winning field goal against the Boston College Eagles during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida. The Seminoles defeated the Eagles 20-17. (Photo by Jeff Gammons/Getty Images) Getty Images

Not only did the Buccaneers take a kicker in the second round, they traded up to get him.

The Bucs moved up to take Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo with the 59th overall pick, an aggressive move considering the teams immediately in front of them (New England and Carolina) weren’t really a danger to take one.

Aguayo left school a year early, but he already earned his degree and was the most accurate kicker in college football, so there wasn’t a lot left to prove.

He’s the highest-drafted kicker since Mike Nugent went in the second round (47th overall) in 2005.

The Bucs had Connor Barth and Patrick Murray on the roster, but that probably won’t last long, as putting such a premium on Aguayo means he’s the guy.

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